Thursday, July 23, 2009

Modeling Beauty

My daughters are two-and-a-half. They are gloriously comfortable in their little bodies. Damian has just learned how to take off her clothes and pull-up all by herself (Yay! Potty-training is closer to reality!), so now she "wants to be a naked baby" nearly every waking moment. And of course, what one sister does, the other mimics.

Baby pudge, tan lines, marker stains, sticky fingers, smeared faces, dirt in their hair - they are fundamentally radiant, and they are confident.

I don't know when my own self-consciousness activated. I remember strangers and family comparing me to my own sister in my hearing. Even my father once told me of my sister, "She has a classic beauty, but you are beautiful." He may as well have called me "special." Then again, he also might have shown both my sister and me how beautiful our own mother was rather than chiding her to be ever thinner and more attentive.

Then there were the girls at school who developed earlier than I, the boys who made fun of my nose, my flat chest and my freckles, the endless, mindless celebrity critique in the media and, more importantly, at home. This actress had gained a few pounds. That one looked better in an earlier movie. Another could stand to change her hair, or her nose, or her height. The constant negative commentary directed at people who made their livings being beautiful built a mountain of self-doubt in a mostly ordinary girl.

It took years for me to become comfortable in my own body, my own face. Then I carried and birthed my own daughters. My body is changed. But, rather than seeing it as alien because it doesn't match mainstream magazine covers, I choose to grow comfortable with it again, to see it as a natural evolution. I want to live with my stretchmarks and soft skin as vainly as I did my tight belly and perky 34-Bs, now proud of what I am capable. And I want my daughters to see this - not me hiding in one-piece swimsuits with skirts or conservative pjs. I want them to know that real women don't look 16 forever.

I won't discuss comparative size or physical beauty with my daughters or around them. Everyone we know and love is beautiful to us as they are. For my toddlers, I creatively edit or avoid stories that speak of girls as pretty or graceful. Who says these hereditary crap shoots are the quintessential traits of a woman? What about bluntness and intelligence and courage?

Funnily, it's my daughters who are showing me how to be the woman I want to model for them. Baby pudge, freckles, breasts that have known their purpose and rarely-brushed hair. When I am at the beach with my girls I'm not worried anymore about whether my belly is sticking out too far, or my shoulders are sagging, or my hair is askew, or my swimsuit is up my butt with 2 lbs. of sand. Instead, they have taught me the joy of abandoning self-criticism in favor of jumping waves, watching fish, running after seagulls and sitting in wet sand digging for shells and clams.

My daughters have taught me that when we engage our surroundings, we aren't looking, and we don't care who is. That's a beautiful place to be.

- for Shape of a Mother

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

You think this cup-o-noodles is still good?

"I brought home a bucket of praying mantises from work - they hatched," Chris tells me over dinner last night. "Once they hatch, they start eating each other, so right now it's like insect thunderdome in the car console."

In my mind, I pictured hundreds of full-grown praying mantises biting each other's heads off, blood-spurting from headless bodies with twitching ciliated appendages, and a few flag-bearing survivors scaling mounds of buggy corpses.

About a month ago, we let loose a fleet of ladybugs in the gardens and trees. The mantises are our second wave of natural pest deterrence.

We forgot to release them last night, so this morning, I feared that our car interior would resemble a biblical plague. As Chris left for work he explained that as soon as I opened the lid, the mantids would cover my hand, but that they wouldn't bite, and I just needed to gently shake and guide them to freedom throughout the garden.

After breakfast and coffee, the girls and I headed out to see our squirmy surprise. We found the newly hatched mantis nymphs in a half-pint cardboard container. Not nearly as 'B'-movie as I'd imagined, each was about a quarter-inch long, nearly translucent brown, with tiny supplicant forelimbs. And contrary to Chris's warning, they huddled in the tiny bit of wood shavings and nectar with which they'd been packed.

The girls and I walked throughout the vegetable garden, coaxing the baby mantises onto pepper, squash, bean and berry plants with our fingers. A lid-full landed on our black-eyed susans.

We've avoided dousing our earth with chemical irritants, but it doesn't escape me that we've nevertheless completely upended the ecological balance of our property.

Someone call an intervention if I start communicating by rubbing my forearms together.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chris and I are learning how to make cheese. We've started with soft cheeses - mozzarella, ricotta, panir - hoping to work our way up to the hard ones with wax shells, colorful aging patterns and healthy aromas.

It's a fun way to spend an evening, talking and bumping into one another in the kitchen. Part science experiment, part Oregon Trail. In fact, the only way it could be better, in my opinion, is if it was bacon - without the messy pig slaughter bit.

Two gallons and a quart of milk yields about two pounds of mozzarella and two pounds of ricotta. The mozzarella from one batch topped a dozen medium-large pizzas for the girls' birthday party and the few days following. And it's incredibly creamy and flavorful - but that could just be the satisfaction of making it myself.

For supplies and recipes, go to New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Permissive Parenting

My daughter Runa is running in circles nearly as wide as her smile, bright red chiffon scarf streaming above her head, leaving a wake of giggles around the dozen other seated parents and obedient children. I have called for her to come and sing with mommy, but my own laugh belies my weak resolve to reel her back into my lap.

Runa, her twin sister Damian and I are trying out a nationally syndicated music class that is subsidized by a community church. Their best friend Jonah and his mother Katy have come for the fun as well.

"Runa, come here, let's stomp our feet together," I tempt. The instructor looks sideways at me as she collects scarves and tiny sandpapered percussion blocks from the other children. Not a single actual musical instrument is ever produced during this one-hour session.

A goodbye song is sung, so exciting that I forget it as soon as the last note falls. I stop to thank the teacher and inquire about tuition and scheduling. She effectively kills my interest in a second try by commenting on how unfair it was to paying parents for me to allow my children to dance.

"What does she expect? It's a music class for 1-3 year olds! We should be letting them explore music with real instruments - be free spirits. They'll have to sit still and stand in lines plenty when they go to school," Katy rants to me later.

I couldn't agree more.

We have to tell our children 'no' for so many legitimate safety reasons: no hitting, no running into the street, no climbing on precarious furniture, no playing with electrical sockets.

Why squelch their joy of exploration - especially in the arts?

Katy and I try different music class several days later. The instructor is surprised by our attendance - no one told her she would have visitors this morning - but she smiles and welcomes us to a large rug in the corner of a spacious dance studio. She learns each child's name and incorporates it in a song, stepping everyone up the musical scale with the help of a xylophone. The children get to bang on drums, shake tambourines, run, sing and dance to relatively familiar folk songs. No one is chastised for having fun; we sign up for the next 12-week session.

My girls will be two in January. I don't get to sleep late anymore. Rarely do I have the attention span to complete a book without colorful illustrations or rhyme. But then, all parents accept some minor tradeoffs. What I get in return is the opportunity to show the world to these fearless, inquisitive little people, and to say 'no' as rarely as I can.